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Does your partner’s communication lift you up or bring you down? Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington, a foremost expert on couple studies, concluded after over twenty years of research that the single, best predictor of divorce is when one or both partners show contempt in the relationship.
Contempt, the opposite of respect, is often expressed via negative judgment, criticism, or sarcasm regarding the worth of an individual. There are four major types of communication which, when spoken, intentionally or unintentionally reveal contempt:
1. “You” language plus directives
“You” language include statements that begin with “you are...,” “you should...,” “you need to...,” “you have to...,” and “you’d better...,” Directives are statements which pass negative judgment or criticism. Examples of “you” language plus a directive include:
“You are not good enough...”
“You should pay attention...”
“You need to do this now...”
“You have to understand my position...”
“You better get it right...”
Most people don’t like being judged or told what to do, and when we use “you” language plus directives, it’s easy to arouse in others feelings of resentment and defensiveness. This type of communication is also problematic in that it tends to invite a “no” response, resulting in disagreements and conflicts.
2. Universal statements
Universal statements are expressions that generalize a person’s character or behavior in a negative way. The most common types of universal statements involve the use of words such as “always,” “never,” “again,” “so,” “every time,” “such a,” and “everyone.” Universal statements are often used in combination with “you” language. For example:
“You always leave the toilet seat up.”
“You never put the tooth paste cap back on.”
“You’re messing up again!”
“You are so lazy!”
“You forget to do this every time!”
“You’re such a slob!”
“Everyone knows that you’re bad.”
Universal statements are problematic in many ways. First, in the mindset of the speaker, there is no possibility of the listener being any other way. The potential to change is discounted. Second, because universals point out “what is wrong,” instead of “how to be better,” such statements actually discourage change. Finally, just as with examples of “you” language earlier, universal statements can easily be disputed. If I say to you, “you never wash the dishes,” all you need to do is to come up with one exception, “that’s not true, Preston, I washed the dishes once last year,” and you have successfully contradicted my statement. The general nature of universal statements makes them very vulnerable to specific counterexamples.
For more tips on relationship success, see my articles "Five Keys to Enhancing Your Emotional Intelligence," "Seven Ways to Say "No" and Keep Good Relations," and "7 Keys to Long-Term Relationship Success."
3. Tough on the person, soft on the issue
In every communication situation involving another person, there are two elements present: the person you are relating to, and the issue or behavior you are addressing. Contemptuous communicators “get personal” by being tough on the person, while minimizing or ignoring the issue or the behavior. For example:
Contemptuous communication: “You are so stupid!”
Effective communication: “You’re a smart person, and what you did this morning was not very smart.”
Contemptuous communication: “You never do any chores. You’re useless!”
Effective communication: “I noticed that you didn’t do the chores this week.”
Contemptuous communication: “You’re always forgetting about me – do you even have a clue?”
Effective communication: “I know you have a lot on your mind lately, and I think it would be good for us to have a date night to reconnect.”
Being tough on the person and soft on the issue can easily arouse negative reactions from the listener, who's likely to take what you’re saying personally, and as a result feel angry, resentful, hurt or resistant. Note that tough on the person and soft on the issue also involves the frequent use of “you” statements and universals.
4. Invalidate feelings
Invalidation of feelings occurs when we recognize emotions, positive or negative, coming out of a person, and either discount, belittle, minimize, ignore or negatively judge these feelings. For example:
“Your concerns are meaningless to me!”
“Your complaints are totally unfounded.”
“You’re blowing things way out of proportion.”
“Who cares if you're angry? Stop over-reacting!"
When we invalidate another person’s feelings, we are likely to cause instant resentment. The person whose feelings we just invalidated is likely to feel hurt and angry. In some cases, a person whose feelings have been invalidated might shut down from you emotionally, so that her/his feelings will not be hurt again.
The four characteristics of contemptuous communication described above work like poison - they destroy the health and well-being of a close, personal bond.
If your relationship suffers from poor communication, the good news is that as long as you and your partner are willing, improvements can be learned quickly and put to use immediately. For more resources on this topic, click on titles & download free excerpts of my publications “Communication Success with Four Personality Types” and “How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People.”
"Communication is a skill that you can learn. It's like riding a bicycle or typing. If you're willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life."
– Brian Tracy
For more on personal and professional success, download free excerpts of my publications (click on titles or covers): "Communication Success with Four Personality Types," "How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People," "The 7 Keys to Life Success," "Wealth Building Attitudes, Values, and Habits," and "Branding Your Career Like Steve Jobs — Seven Essential Lessons in Work Success."
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Preston Ni, M.S.B.A. is available as a presenter, workshop facilitator, and private coach. For more information, write to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.nipreston.com.
© 2013 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide.